The crime drama is a dying art in the Hollywood landscape. Gone are the days where Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma freaked everybody out with lengthy and every bit delightful crime epics. I’m at loss to find the reason why this is a genre so hard to film right. I found We Own the Night after doing a little poking around and the premise seemed simple enough not to fuck up and the cast, featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Robert Duvall and the early days Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament winner Oleg Taktarov, was promising.
The movie itself doesn’t quite live up to its alluring presentation, despite a valiant effort from its director and screenwriter James Gray.
We Own the Night is the story of the Grusinsky family. Bobby (Phoenix) is the only one who didn’t turn out to be a cop and like a good black sheep, is flirting with crime. He’s a club manager. His brother Joe (Wahlberg) and his father (Duvall) ask him to work as a mole for them, so they can debunk an important Russian drug dealer (Alex Veadov). Bobby first refuses, because despite being a black sheep he has the Grusinsky blood running in him, so he’s loyal. When his brother gets shot in the face by a mobster wearing a vintage Jason Vorhees jut bag on his head, he has to think things all over again.
This movie suffers from one fatal flaw that makes it decent, when it could have been really great. It has some really intense haunting scene, pure cinematographic genius. But the issue is that the film is built around them and there’s not much momentum created around them to help them have maximum impact. It’s like the movie was written almost completely to explain those two or three scenes to the audience, instead of building up a strong story. The ending scene, for example is majestic and reminiscent of the Japanese masters Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, but you just can’t build a movie to explain a scene, no matter how strong it is (it is a very strong scene though). We Own the Night’s narrative is underdeveloped.
On the technical aspect, I have to tip my hat to James Gray because his film is beautiful. The most striking feature would be his use of a recurring, gloomy soundtrack, prefiguring and accompanying the Grusinski family’s downward spiral. It’s a subtle background noise, but it’s so dark that it slowly creeps under your bones. And Gray uses it in the right moments, in those intimate moments of sadness and doubt. James Gray’s use of the soundtrack is really the most detail-oriented work he does and it’s truly above average in American filmmaking.
Joaquin Phoenix milks the hell out of his character and really taps into the sensible young man behind the night club manager facade. He’s a great actor and it’s great news for the movie business that he’s coming back after taking a (must needed) extended pause. He’s literally dragging the movie on his shoulders at times, helped by Eva Mendes, who despite having an accessory role is delivering a convincing performance and Robert Duvall, who can play a family father better than most.
We Own the Night was a decent film. It was not great and it won’t win any awards, but still it’s better than most crime film we’ve been exposed to during the last ten years (yeah, I’m looking at you, Streets of Blood!) It’s worth your time for the three gorgeous scenes that are literally at the beginning, middle and end of the film, but what’s in between might pummel you out of focus with déjà vu scenes and unoriginal narrative. It’s competent filmmaking, but competent doesn’t cut it when it has the potential to be awesome.
The end more than lives up to its story
Joaquin Phoenix is awesome
Long, uninspired sequences